John Kinsella, Peripheral Light: Selected and New Poems, Norton; Lightning Tree, Arc; OUtside the Panopticon, Prest Roots Press
“The pastoral and the political possibilities of poetry”, “Spatial relationships”, “A Brief Poetics” – these are the titles of some articles by John Kinsella, born in 1963, brought up in Australia and living now in Cambridge, England. They can be found on his website www.johnkinsella.org. He is a Fellow at Churchill College and a professor at no less than two other higher ed institutions, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia and Kenyon College in the United States. Already he has over twenty-five books to his name. Of these most are poetry collections, with some fiction and drama. There are no books either of theory or research but Kinsella’s short articles, expressed in an easy-going prose, signal an interest in a poetics that hybridises traditional forms and personal and local histories with the experimental techniques of the Language poets, adding a further cross, if needed, in the form of various affirmations of equality in gender difference, the rights of indigenous peoples especially in relation to land ownership, and the sanctity of animal life. Serious issues one and all, although readers who prefer more conventional narratives and evocative description may be reassured to find that Kinsella’s poetry, despite his respect for syntactic obliquity, is relatively untouched by the glee-shrill onslaughts of Bruce Andrews, the sentence-by-sentence biographical refractions of Lyn Hejinian or even the musicality of Charles Bernstein. Others, seeking the more experimental approach will find it occasionally, and not half-heartedly, but it appears to be simply against the grain of the poet’s apparently mild and genial sensibility.
The rural remembrances and the explicit didacticism in Les Murray and Seamus Heaney’s poetry are a better point of comparison here. When there are explicit AngloAmerican-Australian crosses over, as with the poems in which David Hockney’s “Doll Boy” and Andy Warhol himself appear in the small Australian community of Wheatlands, a poetry of gentle comedy ensues rather like a fleshed out version of Robert Crawford’s Einstein-in-Scotland squibs.
Many of Kinsella’s poems are so relaxed formally, with individual lines and line-breaks nearly aurally and semantically freightless whether framed in traditional form or not, it is difficult to see why a prose-poem form (which would still be a loose prose-poem form) was not chosen for so many. Of the political issues, the theme of guardianship of the land is the only one that seethes again and again through Kinsella’s body of work and is absorbed so thoroughly that it, perhaps alone, manages not to foreground itself as a module in the first semester. In these rural poems there is the power not just of understatement but of situations which are ambiguous and unresolved, and whose quality resides in the unglossed open-ness of the initially mysterious.
Poems of fertile landscapes salted up by white man’s brutal ignorance, and of the same settler/occupiers themselves caught up in the tragedy of that fight with the land, are in Kinsella’s best poems told without the internal explanations that damage so much of the other work. Though they may heavily imply a moral lesson the descriptions are rich and the telling either suspenseful or pleasurably oblique. The poet is right to assert, in his prose pieces, that the pastoral has considerable life in it yet, considerable bite even, and his own work in this mode is what makes him so worth re-reading (despite the Western demographic of suburban densities, the low visibility of a vigorous suburban poetics, dematerialised between the polarisation of strong rural and urban tropes, is not, however, something Kinsella fully addresses).
For much of the rest, if this was art, the artist would not only be painting the picture and writing the exhibition catalogue, they would be photocopying bits of the catalogue and pasting the texts on to the paintings themselves. Kinsella’s explanations do not have even that structurally self-conscious wit, however, and it is difficult to read lines like “But maybe now / we can see that such assumptions / were merely a matter of taste” (on once preferring America to the Soviet Union in the space race) as anything but well-intentioned educationalese, a peculiarly loose and clichéd tone for a poem publically addressed to J. H. Prynne.
This problem of over-earnestness as a function of stylistic weakness is, admittedly, better handled in the series of “Poems on Linguistic Disobedience” where L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’s flotsamic energy (perhaps there is a Bruce Andrews connection, after all) unconsciously places the poet’s own helpful but banal analyses under the pressure of unwitting deconstruction. The poems within the beautifully printed Lightning Tree and Outside the Panopticon suggest that Kinsella is still at his best and worst on this score, as if his attention is always going to be divided between saying something and then contextualising it, which is also to attempt to pre-empt other contextualisations. An analytical discourse, though, can still have power if it’s integrated, and control can be regained over a profligate poetry that seems often not in command of its own generative velocities. Kinsella need only look at his own earlier work to re-learn this:
the grave is a magnet
that switches polarity
when you reach it
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